Formula One’s new era opened with the shake-up at the front of the grid the sport had been hoping for in Bahrain as Charles Leclerc and Ferrari claimed a thrilling pole position in front of reigning champion Max Verstappen. Behind Leclerc, qualifying heralded a potential dog-fight between three manufacturers at the front of the field with Mercedes in the unusual position of playing catch-up to rivals Red Bull and a resurgent Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton could manage only fifth place for Mercedes with his teammate George Russell ninth. Verstappen could not take his Red Bull to better than second to Leclerc who believed he could have put in an even faster lap as Ferrari delivered on their pre-season promise with Carlos Sainz in third. Sergio Pérez was in fourth for Red Bull with Valtteri Bottas sixth for Alfa Romeo.
The two Mercedes went out early in Q3 for their first runs but it was Sainz on top for the opening hot laps, with a time of 1min 30.687sec, four hundredths up on Leclerc and Verstappen – who appeared to have an issue putting the heat into his tyres as the air cooled in the darkness of Bahrain– a further one-hundredth back. Hamilton was more than a second down having used worn tyres.
For the final decisive laps, Hamilton went quicker but could not trouble the leaders, ultimately six tenths off the lead. Leclerc put in an almighty lap with a time of 1:30.558 and much as Verstappen attacked he could not match it, a tenth back, just in front of Sainz. A jubilant Leclerc celebrated in delivering what he had felt was the real potential of his car but noted ominously he felt there was more to come.
It is his 10th pole position and Ferrari’s first since Leclerc took the top spot in Baku last year. He is in a very good position to convert it to their first win since Sebastian Vettel won at Singapore in 2019. Leclerc has not won a race since Monza in 2019 but has good form at the Bahrain International Circuit. He took pole here and was conformably leading in 2019 only to lose a likely win due to a problem with his energy recovery unit.
Ferrari had been quietly pleased with testing, where they ran relentlessly and with some pace but will be enormously buoyed by the performance of their car in the crucible of qualifying. Finally free to fully push to the limit, Leclerc was able to extract a mighty lap that amply demonstrated what a competitive car Ferrari have.
Last year’s decision to put the vast majority of their resources into developing this year’s car has clearly paid off. It is stable, well-balanced and, despite the extra weight from the new regulations, is allowing the drivers to throw it at corners. The porpoising problem plaguing other teams, particularly Mercedes, has been all but eliminated and Leclerc’s pace demonstrated just how well the car is dialled-in.
On the first truly competitive run for these brand new cars, unleashed on low fuel and with their engines turned up to the max, Leclerc held a slender advantage. With the phoney war of testing over, the early season pecking order was finally on display and while Red Bull and Ferrari were on fine form, qualifying only confirmed just what a huge job Mercedes have in front of them.
Hamilton won at this race last year, despite once more being outpaced by Red Bull, such a turnaround looks to be a bridge too far for the British driver this time.
The problems facing Mercedes have no straightforward or quick fix. Their car is suffering from what has become known as porpoising, a term originally coined by Mario Andretti in the 1980s, the last time ground-effect cars were used. The car jars up and down on the straight, as the ground-effect downforce compresses the floor so low that the downforce is lost and the car springs back up, restoring the downforce and cycling it back down again.
The resulting bounding leads to a loss of pace as drivers lift off and causes locking-up. It can be ameliorated by adjusting the setup of the car at the cost of lap time. With the Saudi Arabian GP next week Mercedes have no chance to return the car to the factory to work on the problem.
The Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said there were five or six issues where there was “big performance” to be gained.
Kevin Magnussen, back with Haas, was an impressive seventh, with Fernando Alonso eighth for Alpine. Pierre Gasly was 10th for AlphaTauri.
Esteban Ocon was 11th for Alpine and Mick Schumacher 12th for Haas. Lando Norris was 13th for McLaren while Alex Albon made a good return to F1 with Williams, finishing 14th. Guanyu Zhou, the first Chinese driver in F1, was 15th for Alfa Romeo.
Yuki Tsunoda was 16th for AlphaTauri, with the two Aston Martins of Nico Hulkenberg and Lance Stroll in 17th and 19th. Daniel Ricciardo was a disappointing 18th for McLaren and Nicholas Latifi 20th for Williams.